In Bruges is described as a black comedy-drama crime thriller. I will agree it’s a very bleak comedy indeed.
(Spoiler Alert – Skip down to last paragraph to avoid spoilers and read recommendation)
Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson are two Irish hitmen, Ray and Ken, that work for English mob boss Harry, played by Ralph Fiennes. Harry has ordered the two men to lay low in the Belgium resort town of Bruges after a hit in the London area went badly.
When first introduced Ray and Ken are arguing about Bruges. Ray claims that Bruges is too insanely boring for him to endure and Ken claims that Bruges’ cultural and scenic virtues made it a relaxing and interesting hiding place. Ray is a young working-class man who has no interest in a tourist attraction while Ken is an older man who seems to possess sensibilities outside of the brutal realities of his murderous trade.
And so, the first part of the movie is the two hit men bickering about spending their time in the pubs versus sightseeing the medieval tourist destinations. During this time Ray meets a young woman, Chloë, associated with a film shoot, an actress. And among the actors on the streets taking part in the filming is a dwarf named Jimmy whom Ray is inexplicably fascinated by. But while the two men are out and about Harry calls for them and is extremely angry at their absence from their room.
At this point we are shown a flashback to the hit that caused Ray and Ken to hide out in Bruges. During a confession in a Roman Catholic Church Ray confesses to a murder and when the priest asks him who he murdered Ray replies, “You.” Then he proceeds to fire several rounds into the priest. So far so good. Mission accomplished but the bullets also killed several people waiting for confession including a young old boy. And he sees a note that the boy had written listing his sins which included not doing well enough in math class. Now we see that Ray is haunted by his “sin” against innocence.
And in the next scene while Ray is on a date with the actress, Ken takes the phone call from Harry. Harry tells Ken that he sent them to Bruges to give Ray a pleasant send off before he has Ken kill him. When Ken objects Harry explains that killing a kid is a mistake that can’t be allowed and Ray has to pay the price. It’s part of Harry’s personal moral code. Of course, Harry seems like an unhinged psychopath but apparently, he has a code. Ken agrees to the hit.
Meanwhile Ray’s “date” takes a very odd turn. While Ray and Chloë amorously engaged in her bed, a former boyfriend (or a grifting partner of hers, Eirik confronts them and threatens Ray with a pistol. Ray quickly disarms Eirik and during a struggle fires off a blank round next to Eirik’s face, blinding him in one eye and causing Chloë to escort Eirik to the hospital.
The next day Ray goes out to a nearby park. Ken follows him with a silenced pistol prepared to carry out the hit. He sees Ray on a bench with his back to him and as he runs up to shoot him, he sees that Ray is about to commit suicide with a pistol. Ken shouts to Ray and prevents the suicide.
Needles to say in the next moments Ray explains how guilty he feels about the death of the child and Ken explains why he was running up behind Ray with a drawn pistol. After a protracted discussion Ken decides that he can’t kill Ray and tells him to get on a train and disappear into the European hinterlands to avoid being rubbed out by Harry. As Ray leaves Ken speaks to Harry on the phone and tells him he’s let Ray go. Ray goes ballistic and smashes up the phone in his home and screams abuse and profanity at his wife and children. He informs her that he is headed to Bruges on a matter of “honor.”
Back on the train Ray is apprehended by the police for injuring Eirik with his own pistol and is jailed in Bruges. Eventually Chloë bails him out and he spends the day with her walking around town. When Harry arrives, he and Ken climb to the top of a local church tower and once there Harry orders Ken to shoot it out with him. But Ken refuses. He puts his gun down and tells Harry to what he needs to. Harry raves and abuses Ken but tells Ken he can’t kill him because he recognizes that Ken is doing what he believes is right. But he still shoots Ken in the leg out of blind anger. While up in the tower Harry finds out that Ray and Chloë are sitting on a bench at the bottom of the tower. Harry leaves Ken in the tower and runs down to kill Ray. But before Harry can reach Ray, Ken jumps off the high tower and with his dying breath tells Ray that Harry has come to kill him.
Ray flees from Harry and reaches his hotel room to retrieve his gun. The pregnant hotel owner refuses to get out of Harry’s way when he demands to go up to kill Ray in his room. Ray tells Harry that he will jump out of his room window into the canal so that Harry won’t have to shoot past the hotel owner. Ray jumps into the canal and lands on a barge passing by. Harry fires and strikes Ray in the chest. Ray gets off the barge and staggers through the streets and finds himself inside the movie set. The dwarf Jimmy is dressed as a young schoolboy. Ray continues to stumble through the street and eventually Harry catches up to him and shoots him twice more in the back. But one of the bullets exits Ray’s body and strikes Jimmy in the head. When Harry reaches Ray, he sees Jimmy and thinks he has killed a child. He says, “So that’s what it’s like.” Ray tries to tell Harry that Jimmy isn’t a child but is too weak from his injuries. Then Harry takes his gun and shoots himself in the mouth. The movie ends with Ray narrating that if he survives the shooting, he will find the family of the boy he killed and perform whatever punishment they demand of him. He also muses over whether hell is being stuck in Bruges forever. And he does admit he hopes he lives.
Saying this is a black comedy is an understatement. But make no mistake, comedy is exactly what it is intended to be. The movie is laced with sarcasm, irony and comical scenes and dialog that plays on the outrageous and callous behavior of Ray and most of the other cast. Ken seems to be the closest thing to a normal human being in the movie. He spares Ray and then lays down his own life to save him. But surprisingly both Ray and Harry also both seem to have one limit to their ruthlessness. They seem to recognize the sanctity of innocent children. This movie is bizarre. I won’t pretend that it doesn’t have many faults. It’s laced with profanity, loaded with sociopathic behavior and provides a somewhat sympathetic portrayal of gangsters and other assorted low lives. But it does tell a compelling story of two men who have some sparks of humanity mixed in with their brutal careers. Recommended for fans of gangster movies who are not easily offended by gratuitous violence and coarseness.